Minority Report and the Hand Formula

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Tom Cruise’s sci-fi film Minority Report portrays a world where murders can be seen in advance and prevented. Thanks to the “pre-cogs” who make this possible, Washington D.C. of 2052 has not had a murder in six years. The only attempted murders to occur now are those taking place in the heat of passion; intentional plans to murder are easily stopped long before they happen. Individuals are arrested by the Department of Pre-Crime and punished with many years in a comatose state.

It seems that the disturbing twist to this film is that individuals are punished for horrible crimes that they had yet to commit. The movie attempts to draw forth insights about free-will and punishment of people’s thoughts rather than actions. The more I think about it, however, the more disturbing twist to the story is the failure to heed the Hand Formula.

The Hand Formula is a calculus of negligence:”The Hand Formula finds negligence when the actor’s burden (B) is less than the probability (p) of harm, multiplied by the degree of loss (L). B < p x L .”

The Hand Formula can easily be used as a guide for punishing crimes. To dissuade a particular crime, the legal system can manipulate either the amount of punishment or the probability of apprehension to arrive at an appropriate price for committing the crime.

The basis of Minority Report is that that the probability of apprehension for murder is 100%. However, if murderers are always stopped and apprehended before they happen, then the punishment should approach zero.

Perhaps what is disturbing about Minority Report are not the questions of free-will and cognition that it raises but rather the deviation from rules of efficiency that the lengthy punishment seems to imply.

Imagine a world where “pre-cogs” stop murders 100% of the time and the “pre-criminals” are put in a “kill-tank” (similar to a drunk-tank) for the duration of a day. Is this disturbing? I think not. The rare instances in people’s lives when they lose control are stopped before serious damage is done. Murders, both intentional and those of passion, do not occur. This sounds like a pretty nice criminal system, and it doesn’t seem (at least not to me) to carry the aversion that the movie’s system provokes.

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6 Responses to “Minority Report and the Hand Formula”

  1. Eli Says:

    Would you really want to live in a society in which the incentive for self-mastery is reduced or eliminated? Even if you care nothing for the virtue of your compatriots, you might care about your own. When failure is impossible, there is no incentive to succeed. If a nanny-state ensures that logistics will always prevent you from tracking down and killing that annoying telemarketer, where is the incentive to overcome the urge to kill him in the first place? Or is it not important that you overcome that urge?

    Doesn’t the sort of philosophical pragmatism you are espousing also justify things like the guaranteed minimum income?

  2. kebraks Says:

    I think I’ve only heard Anarcho-Capitalists claim that the provision of law and order is “Nanny State-ish” in nature. The State’s role in maintaining courts and police should not be extended to acting as moral mentor to society. The law should be pragmatic. Leave moral tutelage to the priests and rabbis.

  3. Stewart Says:

    Isn’t this bascially an argument that if we can design a utopia we should take it?

  4. kebraks Says:

    I don’t think this is about Utopia. This is simply saying that if we can make the court system more efficient then we should do it. The argument is simply an application of basic law and economics ideas, namely the Hand Formula.

    Should we, in order to encourage moral propriety, remove all punishment for murderers? That would give people great leeway in exercising their moral rectitude.

  5. Eli Says:

    I’m not against law and order. I’m arguing that even if the state provides law and order with 100% effectiveness, punishment should not approach zero. And I’m not arguing primarily on the grounds that my compatriots need the moral tutelage. Rather, I would be horrified to find out what I myself would be like if I were not punished for bad behavior. If an expansive state stepped in to correct my misdeeds before I committed them and then refused to punish me, that is what would happen. At some margin (not the current real world margin, but certainly the 100% margin we’re talking about), I would prefer to let the misdeeds occur and then mete out punishment after the fact (or alternatively for the state to intervene, but still punish).

  6. Stewart Says:

    Perhaps utopia is too strong, perhaps free lunch instead. The argument assumes the foreknowledge that it will work; that being the case, of course we should accept it. We are pressing a magical button that will eliminate murder.

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